Saturday, December 27, 2008

Giving up Fear

I’m giving up fear because fear keeps me comfortably stagnated. Familiar and cloying, it’s almost like one of those invisible electric fences that gives a dog a little shock when it’s at the perimeter of the yard, keeping it in. Similarly, fear alters my body chemistry when I’m about to leave my comfort zone. When fear strikes, the space inside my rib cage feels like it is being squeezed by an invisible iron hand. The veins in my arms and legs seem to vibrate and grip, pulsing with sickly nervous tension. It’s as if I’m being transformed into a jerky marionette of my nervous system. And my belly is so unhappy, tight and gassy.

Why go into the unpleasant and uncomfortable fear?

Life inside the fence feels safe, but it’s stifling. Intellectually, I get that it’s not good for me to stay inside my current habits. These habits that I’m looking at were formed around an idea of myself and who I am that is out-of-date. And even though the stakes are high and facing this fear looks intimidating, I’m feeling restless inside my electric fence of fear. I want to live my life, and actively choose direction. I want to do something for my tired self.

A part of me is tired. This part has seen dreams not come true, in sad moments this part has failed. The first draft of life plans was inadequate. But, this is an opportunity for mind over matter. And I bet that if the dog goes far enough past the boundary of the fence, the collar will stop firing. And similarly, I think that if I go far enough out of my comfort zone I will feel exhilarated to freely roam in new territory.

Comfortable stagnation is really not that comfortable.

Being a prisoner of my nervous system is no fun. I can please myself with small treats and known activities. But to grow, I need to find a way to get past the boundary of my own fear.

Fear keeps me safe.

In defense of fear it has kept me safe, and kept my ancestors safe. But in adulthood there is a call to go beyond the narrow yard where you were taught to stay as a child.

Fear keeps me stupid.

In my interactions with others I can get overwhelmed, when I’d like the courage to speak my truth. This is an area where I feel most stupid. I only remember later what it would have been good to say, or I think of a good question I might have asked. But, sometimes I get lost when I’m faced with a new challenge in communication. Or I just get flummoxed.

Going into fear.

A strategy that works is to go into the fearful place with someone else that has been there, and can encourage you to go there, too. At Kripalu there is a wonderful hot tub, and a cold plunge. I was afraid of the cold plunge. I put my toe in there and a calf, but that’s about it. My body tightened on the inside, seeming to say, “no, don’t go there.” I just couldn’t make myself do it. I told a friend about this, and she told me about how great it was to go back and forth between the hot and cold water. And she offered to be my cold plunge mentor because that was how she overcame her resistance to the cold water. I hesitated for a moment because the cold plunge was a small pool, and most of the women bathe naked. I had a little fear about my personal space, but I really wanted to try so I said yes (of course!).

After getting hot in the spacious hot tub, I followed my mentor over to the little cold plunge bath. She went right in, hugging herself and breathing fast, and said something like, “oh my god,” a few times. I went right in, all the way to my neck. I was smiling. And it was so easy with my friend there. I looked into her eyes and felt courageous. It was very cold, but the coldness seemed secondary to teamwork, doing this thing together, and showing that I could do it, too. I was in no hurry to leave, so we stayed a couple minutes. And when I went back into the hot water my body released so much more. It was wonderful! And for the rest of the visit I did the hot tub to cold plunge whenever I could.

When you have to go it alone…

What about something that you have to do alone? Say that there is nobody to hold your hand. What can we do about a fear like this?

I’m actually stuck with this one. But, of course, I have a few ideas. One is to still get support. Sometimes an understanding and affirming listener can be enough to help someone make a change. Another is to decide to do it. When I’m mentally dancing just outside of something I want it is because there is some resistance to doing it. So on some level I have decided not to do it. For whatever reason, I’m telling myself I want some thing, and at the same time am actively resisting the very thing I might say I want. Ugh. What can I do when I suspect that I’m standing in my own way?

Maybe writing about it can help me understand. Perhaps visualizing something good on the other side will help me convince myself that it’ll be okay. Maybe yoga can help me calm my internal riffraff, or breath exercises can calm the fear response. Maybe meditation can help. Therapy? All of the above? Something I’ve missed? Is it a matter of more life experience? You know, as I age maybe I’ll understand better how to manage myself. But, how much longer do I have? Patience. I’ll keep my eyes open, listen to my heart, and do something about it.

Giving up fear.

I suspect that I have to give up my fear to move forward. The fear is likely to continue to show up in my body, but what I can work with is my response to it. So I’m actually giving up the way I cater to it. Do I allow it to wear me out, so I’m too tired to make the changes I want? Do I allow it to keep me away from experiences that might change me? Do I over-eat to escape the physical tension, and numb myself out? Am I to continue to be a slave of fear, a victim terrorized by my own life?

I believe I have a choice about this. Do I have the strength to walk through the door I haven’t opened? Can I go the way that will change my external and internal landscape? Will I approach a vista that I’d never thought I’d see?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Aparigraha-freed from assumptions and expectations

I trained my eyes to covet. I looked to my eyes to teach me how to be. I see someone who looks good and I want to look like that. I see some who is successful and I want to do like them. This is covetousness. To a degree covetousness is human nature. It’s how we learn to live in the world. Yet Aparigraha, the fifth aspect of Yama, suggests that we be free from covetousness to walk the path of yoga. And I can clearly see some benefit from not coveting things I see. I wouldn’t be disappointed when the way I do something results in a different outcome than the outcome of someone else, and have thoughts like, “Why does my life look like this, when someone else’s life looks so different, so much better or more appealing?”

In fact, yoga classes can be a site of covetous thoughts and resulting suffering. A student sees someone else’s pose and thinks that it looks effortless, and they ask, “Why is this pose so hard for me (when it looks so easy for another)?” Another way this might happen is in memory. A student remembers how they used to bend their knee so deeply, and now they can only go this far. This mental game makes students feel bad, either they’re “not as good as someone else,” or they’re “getting old.” And sometimes these frustrating thoughts cause people to quit practicing yoga. Who wants to live with thoughts of being “less than?” Who wants to feel inadequate? It’s awful to feel disappointed in oneself. So let’s give up! (I’m just kidding. Don’t give up.)

Yoga practice is an opportunity to develop inner strength. It is likely that in just about everything there are people who seem better or people who seem worse at whatever “it” is. And yoga really can help us physically with our limitations, and make life seem a little better. A person has to find the right class for them, of course. An aggressive fitness (workout-style) yoga class is not for everyone. All yoga classes are not created equally. So if you’ve found yourself dissatisfied with one, I encourage you to find another. Or find some way to inspire your practice. Yoga is the best thing I have found in life, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Love yoga!)

Another reason I see for approaching Aparigraha (non-covetousness) is that it’s disrespectful to myself to covet the lives of others. I have my own history, my own attributes, and my own perspective to bring to any given moment. And I think it reveals a lack of self-esteem when I think I want the life of someone else. It’s also the easy way, and a distraction because it keeps me from my real work. My work is to decipher myself, my situation, and my resources in the best way I can, and to apply what I have to this life experience, to contribute what I have, my gifts, to the world.

In terms of the yoga practice, the work of students is to bring their full attention, full effort, and most caring attitude towards the practice of yoga. In this way, a person can best obtain the benefits of practice. Notice that these suggestions have nothing to do with how fit one is, or how “good” the poses are done. Don’t let comparison with others confuse you. The practice is for you as you are. It is helpful.

Covetousness in communication and relationships. Greedy interactions.

I have observed myself (and others) dominating conversation. Bringing what I thought was true to words, without leaving enough room open for listening. I have spoken in this way, not really wanting, and even afraid to hear what the other person would say. This is a greedy way to interact in ordinary conversation. When someone does this, all of the “conversation space” is coveted by the loudmouth. And the content of the conversation is also jealously guarded by the speaker. There is a sense that a different viewpoint would somehow diminish the speaker’s truth or importance. This is fear, and far from the truth. There is actually an opportunity to explore truth with another person. In fact we can’t have a profound understanding alone. The illusion of this is a sort of mental masturbation. Our knowledge and truth is held by all of us together as a group. Greater understanding only happens when we come together and share our different viewpoints.

Greedy behavior springs from inner poverty. This is why the purely material view of life doesn’t work for me. What’s going on for me inside—invisible to others—determines how I interact with the world. Of course, what is going on for me inside, does show up in my behavior in the world, so others experience the after-effects of my inner world. This is why I seek to understand and develop my inner world. Just as light affects the chemistry and scientific processes of photography resulting in a specific photographic print, so the energy of my inner life shows up in my outer life with the same level of specificity and science as a photograph. What I see in my life is directly related to all influences from my past, like culture, genetics, animal processes (like what I’ve eaten), mental processes (how I’ve thought), and likely more.

So I seek to cultivate my inner life with yoga.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Forgiveness Room

Just as I might cultivate a rose garden on the land, I pledge to cultivate forgiveness in myself. This morning I started by waking up early and forgiving everyone who came up as I thought about the desire to forgive. And I allowed them, in my mind’s eye, to forgive me, too. My heart softened pleasantly as I did this. I imagined a room inside myself, and invited different instances from my experience to be forgiven.

Later, when I was on the train, I imagined that the car I was on was an extension of my forgiveness room. And if anything might come up that would ordinarily annoy me—like if someone were to talk loudly on the cell phone right by me—I intended to invite it to meet my forgiveness right away. I had a pleasant ride. As I walked to the yoga studio I imagined that everything I could experience outside at any given moment was a part of my space of forgiveness. I had a pleasant walk.

Then, when I taught the first private yoga session I imagined that the room I was in was the room of forgiveness. I needed to forgive myself for a couple things I said, and I did it right on the spot. I forgave my judgmental mind because it wasn’t so much what I said, but an internal judgment of, “stupid,” that needed to be forgiven. I’m hard on myself, and I can forgive my critical mind.

The mind must open to forgive. The heart must open to forgive.

But, an angry or resentful mind closes down to defend a position. An angry mind can’t see clearly. It judges harshly. An angry mind is stuck going round and round in the same place. An angry heart hardens into a little ball. An unforgiving mind demands or cries, “Why can’t you see me?”

And a forgiving mind can listen—even to anger and resentment. The forgiving mind can see hot emotions without loosing itself. A forgiving mind can learn. A forgiving mind and heart can love someone and see his or her limitations. The heart is expansive. And a forgiving and confident mind might say, “I see you, and I’m comfortable in myself.”

A mind that forgives can grow. A mind that forgives can relax. A mind that forgives can love freely with warmth and support from the heart.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Brahmacharaya, Yikes!

A man was talking on his cell phone on the Howard Line CTA train: “You gotta take care of yo wife.” Pause. “You know what I mean.” Pause. “He. He. ‘Cause the little man is all we got.”

I might know what he means. Our sexuality is important. And at the same time who we are is so much more than our “little man” or “little woman.” I think we’ve got a whole lot more than our sex organs in this life. And it’s dangerous if we believe that the only important or good thing about life is sensual pleasure—which includes a lot more than sex. It could indicate depression if that’s what we think, and create a fertile ground for addictions to take hold. And yet many of us seem to be in this kind of space to one degree or another. I am.

The call to pleasure is strong! And, just the thought of someone trying to tell me what to do with that part of my life makes me want to hide under something! No!

Yet, the concepts defined in the eight limbs of yoga, including the fourth aspect of Yama: Bramhmacharaya, or self-restraint with sensual pleasures, I feel are nature defined, rather than exterior rules to be enforced. The concepts have the potential to indicate where we might be unbalanced, and individuals can take it from there, either by ignoring the information or by going deeper.

“Can’t wait for the workday to be over” (so I can drink beer, or enjoy something). “My day will get good as soon as I get off work…” These are the kinds of statements I hear from people all the time. What is it that happens after work that is so good? Sometimes it’s getting drunk, sleeping, or sitting in front of the TV. I think it’s the promise of doing something you want that is so good. But, are we really doing what we want in our off time? Or is life a constant struggle? We might be so tired from a stressful job that a drink is the best thing one can imagine at that time. Escape!

Our hectic and stressful lifestyles make restraint of any kind difficult. We want what we want, and if the money is in the pocket and it’s legal, what reason is there to hold back? Our extreme work requires extreme play. Current society is built on this.

When I am in a contented state of mind, I enjoy more natural foods, light foods that are subtle in flavor (in line with Brahmacharaya). I am happy with life when I feel good. And when I am stressed there are times that a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream seems like the cure to my pain. It’s not the ice cream that is bad, it’s the way I have engulfed the whole container desiring escape into a beautiful ice cream dreamland that is suspect. The ice cream can’t save me or solve any of my problems; all it can do is give me a moment of pleasure. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it is bad for me when it’s a pattern of escape, whether it’s with ice cream, cookies or whatever.

There is only so much time in this life, and I want to use it as well as I can. I believe there is something more for me in this life, something I can accomplish; there is some way I can contribute to this world to help make it a better place. And when I loose sight of that, that’s when I want to escape. It can be so painful to not know, or to feel hopeless.

The message from Brahmacharaya to me at this time is: Don’t get so lost in what you’re feeling that you forget what you are doing.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Asteya, Been Caught Stealin’!

Asteya, the third aspect of Yama, is actually non-stealing. But, in thinking about it I am realizing that stealing is huge! Where does it begin? And, how can it end? There is interdependency in our human predicament that can even make it hard to decipher where stealing or economic corruption is taking place.

I think I was in third grade when I was picking up a prescription at the local pharmacy for my parents, and the idea came to me that I could take a candy from the container by the cash register while the cashier turned away to find the package for my parents. And I snatched a grape Jolly Rancher—my favorite flavor at the time because it was purple and anything purple was great as it was my favorite color—and shoved it into my coat pocket. The woman behind the counter gave me the package, and I gave her a big smile and said, “Thank you.” And she made some small talk that made me nervous. And I left. I was hardly around the corner of the building, and still on the sidewalk just beside it when I opened my prize. The crinkly sound of the wrapping coming off sang of my reward. I put it in my mouth and didn’t enjoy the familiar flavor at all. The feeling that I had done something wrong tainted it. So I took it out of my mouth and put it back in the wrapper and threw it away in the dumpster behind the pharmacy. I had discovered that I didn’t enjoy stealing. And from then on, I paid for my candy with pride.

When I was a little older, at a family gathering a youthful role model of mine told a tale about renting a car. When this person was returning it, somehow they ended up with $200 in extra change, and were aware that the cashier had made a mistake. This person felt that it was okay for them to keep it because it was not their mistake, and seemed really pleased about what had happened. I eagerly looked to three generations of my family for a reaction, and there was very little. They acknowledged what my role model had said, but that was about it. What I took from this was that this behavior was fine. So when I found myself the beneficiary of a cashier’s mistake I, too, considered it a random good fortune. But a few years ago I made my own decision about this and made sure that my change was correct, returning any extra money. And the cashier is always grateful when I do this.

“Do not steal,” is a basic law of people living together, yet it’s clear that it’s not that easy to do. When people are in survival mode, forget about it. And if someone has to steal something in order to feed their family, which is a real survival need and necessary to live that is one thing. But stealing also happens when people have their survival needs met. Why do we do this?

A good reason not to steal, besides, “we’re not supposed to,” or “to gain enlightenment,” which might not convince some people, is to gain each other’s trust. Can you imagine a world where people trust and respect each other? Dream of this: a trusting world. Especially because I live in a big city, I am aware of being suspicious of people, and am aware of people being suspicious of me. By consciously non-stealing, Asteya, we might build a culture of integrity rather than the current inertia that inadvertently supports racketeering and political corruption. As it is, it seems like we are just sitting around and watching the world decay. Even with our small actions amongst ourselves we can do something about it. In fact that’s the power we really have, our actions. So pay attention to what you do, and how it affects others. And I’ll pay attention to what I do, and how it affects others. And we will make the world a better place through self-observation and self-correction.

As a third-grader I seemed to understand this. I tried stealing candy, didn’t like it, corrected the behavior, and even enjoyed the results of the discovery. But when I got a little older, for a while I trusted stories from my family more than my own experience, as in the story about $200 extra back from a returned rental car. Maybe it was fine for them, but I didn’t agree. And even though I didn’t agree, I didn’t speak up. I wish I would have, but at the time I didn’t know I could. I expected them to teach me, because somehow I had learned that. Now, rather than holding up stories from my culture that aren’t working for me, I seek to understand what I do, correct it as necessary, act in integrity, and speak up when necessary.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Satya: Slippery or Sublime?

Satya, the second aspect of Yama, means truth. Now, if I consider this to be the kind of truth that is about me in a particular moment in time, as time goes on this truth is likely to change. But if I see it as a larger entity about connectedness, community or wholeness, then truth is sublime.

The slippery truth…

Truth can look unclear when we try to see it in an individual’s life-story. For example there was a time, when I was attending the Ohio State University, when I thought I was in love with a really handsome art student (and I was 18 years old). I still remember the kiss we had on “the oval.” It was ferociously windy and grey, but when we kissed the wind calmed. And I thought that the world was making space for our personal love to blossom. Over the summer, I poured my best feelings into a letter. It was a work of art that included a beautiful black-and-white picture of cobblestones that I had taken in Europe. The stones spoke of earth and infinity with the magic of perspective.

Later I had learned what he had been thinking about during that time. When he came back for fall semester, he told me that he did not love me at all, and that he had just been “horney” when he met me. So I told him that I was mistaken in the letter. And he couldn’t believe that, because it was the most beautiful letter he had ever received. I asked him to destroy the letter because it was false. It was false because I didn’t have all the facts when I wrote it.

So for me, in my feelings toward an individual (the handsome art student), I had experienced a big shift. This is slippery truth. “I love you with all my being,” changes to, “you betrayed me,” in this story. It was a loss of trust in my feelings of love, because I had pinned it on an individual. But, now I think that my feelings of love are so much bigger than that, one other person is not responsible for the infinite capacity for love I feel in myself. The love I feel for another person is a doorway toward love’s treasure within me, within this world.

Sublime truth.

When I observe all the ways I was cared for by so many different people in my life, and that this care in the world gave me the ability to be where I am right now, writing this entry, I am astounded. It fills me with awe to see within my life how everything I have experienced feeds into and enriches this moment I am living right now. It is beyond an adjective, to consider how the lives of my ancestors gave me the gift of life, or even how their needs and desires may live on in me. In what way, or to what degree do their struggles reflect mine?

I might go on but I find myself without words to do it. Thank you for reading. I value the connection we have. Be well.

Alright, I’m back. In the paragraph above I talked about connections between people across time. Another way sublime truth can be observed is in a group of people in the present moment. This can happen when differences of opinion can live in the same space, and a larger understanding can be perceived, but possibly not easily talked about. And of course this can be seen as a model or workspace for meditation. In meditation we inevitably confront contradictions inside ourselves. And we can’t turn away from ourselves the way we can another person. So working with a group that allows enough room for different points-of-view, can help us work more compassionately with ourselves.

So, in terms of the yoga, this truth—Satya is about acceptance. And this kind of acceptance can make the world a better place, a place where we can listen to and hear other people, and we can experience ourselves being heard, as well. It is also about honoring the infinite ways in which we are connected in any given moment and across time. (I know yoga is a timeless state, perhaps even beyond time, but from my perspective as an earth-being this is how I see it.)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ahimsa Dogwalking and Primordial Love

A friend and her husband were walking their big pit bull/German shepherd dog, a rescued mutt in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY when the dog charged towards some bushes. My human friends looked to see what was there. It was a frightened bunny. So they decided to give Roofis his walk around the lake, and if the rabbit was still there when they got back they were going to rescue him. (In Prospect Park a bunny too afraid to run away from a big dog is in grave danger.) My friends recognized him as an animal abandoned by people.

By the time they arrived back at the same spot, they had met up with friends also walking their big dog, and the rabbit was still there cowering in the shadow under the bushes. A friend offered to hold the leashes of both dogs, and the other three went under the bushes for the rabbit.

The friend holding the dogs became concerned that others in the park were feeling uncomfortable about the commotion in the bushes so she started to call out, “Bunny wunny fritter-face,” over and over in an effort towards communicating what was going on under the bushes.

Then a primordial scream filled the air, and the dogs took off, pulling my friend to the ground on her back. The rabbit was caught. It was picked up by one of the friends, and the dogs were just triggered to run by the staggering scream that cut through the darkening night.

Rabbits are prey animals, so when they are picked up they might interpret that as the end of their life, thus the primordial scream. So at the end of the adventure, everyone was fine. My friend who was pulled down by the dogs was okay and laughed it off. And this is the beginning of the story of how I came to live with my first rabbit, Fritter (I am petting him in the above picture.).

Ahimsa, the first tenet of Yama, the first of the eight limbs of yoga, is non-violence or non-harming. I also interpret it to mean compassionate action, and compassionate action can mean tough love, or loving when the going gets tough, even loving the world enough to quarrel with it and standing up for what is right. The translation “non-violence” might lead someone to the false notion that yogis are soft, as in pushovers. This is not the case.

Now, my friends from the story do not identify themselves as yogis, but nonetheless the story, itself, has aspects that illustrate ahimsa in action. For example, when they encounter the rabbit, they make the best decision in the moment that considers the important factors. They do what they came out there to do, which is walk the dog. They might have become overwhelmed with an impulse toward martyrdom, “We have to save this rabbit, now!” But they decided to take care of Roofis first. And by doing that they ended up meeting more people along the way who could help.

Ahimsa also concerns thoughts, not just compassionate action, but also includes what is happening behind the scene. So, when the friend holding the dogs saw that it was getting dark and there were concerned glances towards the bushes from others in the park, she decided to call out a goofy bunny song, “Bunny wunny fritter-face,” to let people walking by know that this was a compassionate project happening beneath the bushes in Prospect Park. I guess it seemed to work.

Fritter, the rabbit, had no idea what was happening to him. I would say he thought he was going to die, and the sound that issued forth from him was his last grasping for his soft and fuzzy life. But then he was fine, held firmly in the arms of a caring person, and he didn’t fuss on the way home. And this is just how it is, sometimes. We go through a harrowing experience and then everything is fine, and possibly better than it was before.

This reminds me of falling in love, and the dance performance I saw last night, ‘Lacunae’ performed by Jonathan Meyer at Links Hall in Chicago. I had never seen such intimate details of a man’s emotional life expressed through the body. The title, Lacunae, means unfilled spaces or gaps. And the work communicated volumes about loss, the parts we don’t usually talk about. There was a section, in particular that I read as attempting to connect, and wanting to loose oneself, possibly in love. I felt my own heart breaking as I watched this innocence playing itself out before me. For the dance led into difficulty, and faking it for others, and I didn’t get a sense that the emotions were resolved at the end. This is just what’s happening for this performance: incredible longing, attempts at escape, courageously opening up, and then confusion at the outcome.

Who hasn’t lived this story? It’s a very human story. And, when you’re going through it, it has a primordial grip as if you are going to die. Which is what the story of Fritter’s primordial scream reminds me of. It reminds me of those times in life that just seem to be too much, and then, seemingly inexplicably, you are on the other side and things are fine, possibly better than before. Life goes on.

And how does Ahimsa play into this? Well, I’m not sure I have an answer, but as individuals we can make choices that support thinking, communicating, and acting with compassion. This means taking the time you need to know yourself and make right decisions. Sometimes even if you are the instrument or vehicle through which someone else has a primordial or major reckoning experience (like you’re the one who says it’s time to break up), there are greater forces at work. Just like Fritter misinterpreted being lifted off the ground in the park as a prelude to his demise only to find himself in caring arms, the world might have plans for us that we cannot fathom.